Tim Ferriss offers good advice to anyone struggling to accomplish more: “Focus on being productive rather than busy.” Your day likely begins with a long to-do list, even if it’s only a mental one. While it might be easy to scan your notes (or your brain) for those things that are simple or pleasant to do, this is not always the best use of your time. Sure, you will get some sense of accomplishment for checking 5-10 things off that list each day, but has that really gotten you further toward your personal or professional goals?
Mush Monday has listed ten major obstacles to productivity, and first on the list is “inability to prioritize.” There’s a reason it’s first. Prioritizing your activities – whether by the hour, day, year, or even longer – can have an enormous impact on the level of productivity you are able to achieve.

Prioritization means different things to different people. Your priorities in college are vastly different from your priorities in retirement. Your priorities for your job are vastly different from your priorities in your marriage.
In the simplest terms, a priority is “something given special attention.” Notice this definition doesn’t refer to something that deserves special attention. This is where many people go astray. They make a mistake when they prioritize by picking the wrong things on which to focus, the wrong tasks to do first.

But wait, you say, didn’t you just tell me that priorities are different for every person? Then why can’t I prioritize what I want to prioritize? The answer is simple. While it is true that priorities may be very different for each person, the reason for establishing them is the same.

You want to prioritize those projects or tasks that get you closer to achieving your personal and professional goals. By doing so, your level of productivity increases, not just because you are more efficient, although that is definitely important, but also because your attention has been redirected – with laser-like focus – to those activities that propel you the farthest and that bring your life the most fulfillment.

WHY PRIORITIZE?

We’ve already said that the inability to prioritize is a major obstacle to productivity. It turns your life into a slow-motion version of itself. Instead of focused, straight-line, point-a-to-point-b journeys, your everyday activities become jagged jaunts here and there, stopping at every souvenir shop and ice cream parlor along the way. The destinations, the results, the accomplishments, all are prolonged, seemingly interminably, just beyond your reach.

The positive psychological impact of setting and accomplishing goals cannot be understated. Each achievement under your belt boosts your self-confidence, motivates you, and excites you. That sort of energy is far more powerful than caffeine or B-12 could ever be. Effectively prioritizing your thoughts and activities shortens the distance between inaction and success, and each small victory in turn catapults you to the next.

In a similar vein, the negative psychological impact of failing to prioritize can have dramatic consequences on your quality of life. By failing to develop an effective system of prioritization, or by failing to adhere to one you have developed, you set yourself up for a never-ending series of failures, of missed opportunities that leave you with a pervading sense of disappointment. You can feel like you’ve let yourself down, or your family, or your co-workers. This can lead to a vicious cycle of setbacks, with many of your activities predestined to be defeats, simply because you were not in the right mental state or you were not focused enough for the task at hand.

Stress plays a role in prioritization as well. The absence of a method to prioritize means you are constantly reacting to what occurs instead of controlling the events of your day. Sure, unexpected events happen all the time, but with the right systems in place, you can exert quite a bit of influence on whether those surprises drastically disrupt your rhythm of activity, or whether they can be neatly inserted into your routine. And this can either increase or decrease the level of stress in your life.

PERSONAL VS PROFESSIONAL PRIORITIES

The impacts of not knowing or not focusing on your priorities can have vastly different repercussions in your life. For example, if your 9-to-5 is just a job and not a career, per se, or your passion, your priority list at work may consist of tasks that don’t make much of a difference in your mental well-being. It is possible that your biggest prioritization challenge is whether to eat your protein bar before or after lunch. But then when you clock out, you drive home to the areas of your life that do fire you up – your family, your hobbies, your volunteer work, your reading list. That’s where your prioritization skills have the most impact on your psychological well-being and level of self-satisfaction. In such a case, that’s where you need to focus the hardest on developing a system that fulfills your goals in those areas.

Or maybe the opposite is true. Maybe you wake up energized to tackle your day at work, which for you is not just any job, but the culmination of your studies, the source of your greatest passion, the cup from which you sip the life-sustaining elixir that motivates you day to day. In this case, a lack of ability to prioritize can result in missed deadlines, a reputation for unreliability, or a constant, stress-filled feeling of being behind and needing to – but never being able to – catch up. Then you obviously need to focus your efforts first and foremost on improving systems at your workplace that increase productivity through the development of a system of prioritization.

Ideally, there will be some balance in your life between personal and professional priorities. The pursuit of a healthy work-life balance is, in itself, a smart target for priority-setting, and arguably one of the most fulfilling and deeply satisfying changes you could make to your life.

PRIORITIZING YOUR PRIORITIES

Here’s where it gets really interesting. And, by that, I mean here’s where it gets really difficult. For some people, the priorities in their lives are crystal clear, whether or not they have a formal system for identifying or focusing on them. For others, not so much. So before you work on a system for prioritization, you first need to figure out which parts of our life are begging for the most attention. As mentioned above, the two biggest areas of your life you want to evaluate are your personal and professional goals, although there will be some overlap between the two.

Take a good, long look at what you’re spending the majority of your time and energy doing. This exercise in self-analysis is going to benefit you greatly as you figure out what your priorities currently are and whether those are the same as what they should be. It also helps you become self-aware as it relates to time management. Once you’ve consciously determined the things you want to prioritize, then diversions and time sinks will be more quickly identified and remedied by you.

Determining your overall priorities is a much easier step than the next one: developing your system of prioritization. A systemic approach to increasing productivity through prioritization is important because it helps you establish routine and consistency. The objective is to make the act of prioritizing itself a habit that becomes second nature to you, something you do nearly subconsciously, and something you can apply to many different areas of your life.

The careful and thoughtful process of developing a system of prioritization that makes you more efficient and more productive is neither easy nor quick, but it is definitely worth the effort and time it takes to do so. So how do you develop this system? Read on.